Restorative justice: a systematic review of the social work literature

GUMZ Edward J., GRANT Cynthia L.
Journal article citation:
Families in Society, 90(1), January 2009, pp.119-126.
The Alliance for Children and Families

Restorative justice is an alternative paradigm for dealing with the effects of crime and wrongdoing that seeks to bring healing to victims, offenders, and the community. This article systematically reviews 80 social work peer-reviewed articles dealing with restorative justice. The role of social workers in restorative justice programs remains largely unknown. Suggestions are made for enhancing social work practice in the restorative justice arena.

Extended abstract:

GUMZ Edward J.; GRANT Cynthia L.;

Restorative justice: a systematic review of the social work literature.

Journal citation/publication details

Families in Society, 90(1), January-March 2009, pp.119-126.


Eighty studies of varying types are reviewed to map the coverage of restorative justice in the (primarily US) social work literature according to five main themes: theory; practice; religion and spirituality; research activity; and social work education. Despite the close parallels between restorative justice and social work principles, the former has been little explored in the social work literature to date.


Restorative justice offers an alternative approach to victims, offenders and communities for dealing with the harm caused by crime. It involves all parties, unlike the traditional adversarial approach, and may offer the chance of better outcomes. It also has principles in common with social work, and this review focuses on how restorative justice has been considered in the literature of this discipline.


What sources were used?

The first search, yielding very little return, was conducted in Social Work Abstracts. Most of the material came from a subsequent search of Social Services Abstracts. The authors are aware of the significant growth of restorative justice literature in the criminal justice field but there is no suggestion that they conducted searches in criminal justice databases for studies involving social work professionals.


What search terms/strategies were used?

Restorative justice was the sole search term, and searches spanned January 1977 to January 2007.


What criteria were used to decide on which studies to include?

Eligible studies were peer reviewed and in English.


Who decided on their relevance and quality?

Relevance assessment of the 126 identified papers consisted in removing non-peer reviewed material. Methodological quality assessment was not an issue because the prime purpose of the review was to map the literature.


How many studies were included and where were they from?

Eighty papers from 42 social work journals, the earliest published in 1995, were reviewed. Some are cited in the text, but there is no complete listing. Geographical origins (US or ‘international’) were recorded, but no figures are reported.


How were the study findings combined?

A sample of 27 papers was read to identify themes and develop five main coding categories: theory; practice; religion and spirituality; research; and social work education. These, and sub-categories, were used to classify the material, with analysis carried out using SPSS version 15.0.

Findings of the review

Restorative justice theories

Only 12 of the 80 papers discuss theoretical issues, but these are ‘instructive’, exploring relationships between the principles of restorative justice and key social work concerns such as social justice, relationship between empowerment and coercion, the person-in-environment perspective, and the strengths perspective. One theoretical critique questions whether it is possible or desirable to equate the micro-level healing aspects of restorative justice with the macro-level impact of crime.


Practice of restorative justice

Three main approaches were identified: victim-offender mediation (VOM) (27 studies); family group conferencing (FGC) (25 studies); and peacemaking circles (14 studies). Other studies did not address a specific approach.


Most US programmes involve a VOM model in which victim and offender are brought face-to-face with a trained mediator. VOM is time consuming because of the extensive case preparation required, but high levels of satisfaction have been reported by both victims and offenders. In most cases it is applied to juveniles convicted of less serious, non-violent property crimes, and there is some concern about whether it should be used with more serious offenders because of ‘unintended negative consequences’ such as the re-victimisation of victims or their families.


FGC, or restorative conferencing with a facilitator, grew out of traditional Maori practices and includes secondary (family members, friends etc) as well as primary victims. Extensive case preparation is needed. FGC is increasingly popular in the USA because of its congruence with empowerment practice and values of self-determination, and has been used with serious criminal acts, repeat offences, domestic violence and – most commonly – child welfare issues. However, there are concerns that there is still limited use of FGC because of inadequate funding, staffing and administrative support.


Peacemaking circles also developed from aboriginal (including Navajo) traditions, and involve community members, victims, offenders, family members and friends speaking ‘in a nonjudgmental way’ with the help of a facilitator or circle keeper. Circle keeping, with its emphasis on listening, patience and empathy, has much in common with good social work practice. Like VOM and FGC, peacemaking circles involve extensive preparation and are often criticised on cost grounds. It is also argued that they are based on ‘nostalgic visions of a community that no longer exists’, and may never have done so.


The authors also note that less than half of those referred to mediation in the USA may actually go ahead with a face-to-face restorative justice meeting. While high satisfaction ratings have been reported for the face-to-face approach, ‘it may also be a significant barrier to participating in restorative justice programs.’


Religion and spirituality

Fifteen of the 80 studies examine restorative justice within a religious or spiritual context. VOM programmes are used by a variety of Christian denominations, and policy statements have been issued in favour of restorative justice as an approach that combines both justice and mercy. One commentator argues that forgiveness, while it may promote communal healing, is not necessary for a successful outcome. Another, discussing the potential of using restorative justice principles in a spiritual approach to probation, notes the potential conflict with individual freedom of religious choice.


Research activity and methods

Although there has been an increase in the examination of restorative justice in the social work literature in recent years, ‘research on the topic remains an aberration.’ Most of the studies reviewed discuss restorative justice in general terms, calling for more outcomes research. Only one reported a programme evaluation, another gave details of a pilot study, and a third discussed a method for measuring satisfaction with restorative justice practices. The ‘unique organization, structure and participant involvement’ of each programme make quantitative evaluation ‘extremely difficult, and the existing measurement tool is of limited use. Internal validity may be compromised by the selection bias of research participants, with White male victims and Hispanic male offenders predominating in the studies conducted to date.


Qualitative evaluation methods predominate, which is ‘consistent with the complex, sensitive, and nonlinear scope of restorative justice practices.’ However, a major impediment to research as a whole in this field is the fact that researchers need to be trained in restorative justice principles and practices ‘in order to fully capture and understand the subjective meaning, outcomes, and impact of restorative justice on a victim, offender, or community.’ At present, the social work research literature on this topic is heavily dominated by a few names.


Social work education

Among the 80 studies reviewed, very few mention social work education. Social work educators generally lack interest in restorative justice, or believe it is not relevant to social work.

Authors' conclusions

‘The role of social workers in restorative justice programs remains largely unknown’ despite the fact that ‘the profession addresses human behavior from a biopsychosocial and spiritual perspective concordant with restorative justice.’ The increased involvement of social workers in restorative justice education, training, research and practice is ‘greatly needed’.

Implications for policy or practice

None are discussed
Subject terms:
restorative justice, social work;
Content type:
research review
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